Friday, January 09, 2009

Butt-naked, tag-toed, laid out on a slab...

Friday, Jan 9, 2009

, get-outta-town, pre-weekend rush is usually a busy time in the cab world. During a “normal” economic environment I would expect to have three-to-five short fares per hour on a Friday afternoon, or maybe a barrage of airport rides. But today, starting at 12:11 PM, I drive around for more than two hours without a single fare. I stop once -- at Subway for less than 10 minutes to buy a six-inch “Veggie Delight” on wheat -- but the rest of the time I’m rolling, trolling, without luck.

Thousands of Apple computer enthusiasts and vendors are breaking down their weeklong Macworld convention and hitting the road. Shortly after 2 PM I swing by Moscone Center to see if I can snag someone heading for the airport, but the taxi stand is overflowing with cabs, and I just cruise on by. I’ve got my ear on an NPR story about a group of atheists in Spain who are troubled by all the problems stirred up by the various people in the world who believe their God is the one-and-only true God, when, at the corner of Fourth and Howard, at 2:20 PM, after exactly two hours and nine minutes at the wheel of an empty cab, I am flagged by a large-ish, forty-ish, slightly overweight, bald-headed black man. He seems to be limping a bit, and grimacing a bit, as he moves toward my cab.

I always turn my radio down (or off) when I have customers, and now I turn it way down. My fare says he is out finishing up some errands this afternoon, and right now he’s going to the Metro PCS cell phone store at Sixteenth and Bryant. He works as an in-home, health-care provider, but he is currently on disability himself due to having “pulled my back out.” He is fumbling with his cell phone and seems distracted by my questions, so I leave him alone and turn up NPR a snitch. After a couple of moments my fare clicks his phone shut. “What’s that they’re saying on the radio?” he asks.

“It’s a story about some atheists in Spain,” I say. “They’ve hired a truck to drive around their city with a billboard saying, ‘There probably is no God, so what the heck, why don’t you just go ahead and relax and enjoy your life.’ Spain is the third country with a group like this –- the first two countries are the United States and England.”

My fare begins to speak in a voice that is even, neutral, but which begins to gather strength and conviction and lofty heights shortly after takeoff. “Well I can tell you this,” he says. “There is a God. Those people in Spain and wherever are going to be in for a very big surprise when they find out. I know –- because I died on January 15, 1985, over at Highland Hospital in Oakland. I’d been smoking crack and that’s where I wound up. In the emergency room. Dead. Heart stopped. Not breathing. I was butt-naked, tag-toed, laid out on a slab, and the guy who was working on me went to get a saw to cut open my chest. And while he was gone I saw a bright light. God. And God told me, ‘I’ll give you a choice -– you can either call it quits right now or you can stay and preach the gospel.’ I decided I wanted to preach the gospel, and I’ve been preaching it ever since. Twenty-three years now...”

He continues: “When the hospital guy comes back, I’m sittin’ up, butt-naked except for my tag toe. But I’m breathing. Heart beating. Guy says, ‘How’d you get back alive?’ I say, ‘God gave me a choice, and then he brought me back.’ He says, ‘I guess so, cause you was dead as dead gets. I just went upstairs to get this saw to cut your chest open and do an autopsy. But here you are all woke up.’ So...”, my fare tells me, “whenever I hear people tell me there aint no God, I tell ‘em they’re a liar, because there sure is a God. And one day we’re all going to find out.”

He doesn’t sound like he’s looking for an argument, he’s just doing his witnessing, and now he seems finished. I’m a dues-paying member of the Secular Coalition For America, a group that lobbies in Washington to try to blunt the damage religious fundamentalists have visited upon our country and planet recently. Consider Prop 8, which was on California’s statewide ballot in last November's election, and which was designed to strip a fundamental civil right (the right to marry) from California's gay citizens -- and which won (for now). Someone from the No-on-Prop-8 campaign said it best, “It’s time to re-institute the separation of church and hate.” Having listened to my fare’s story, I figure I’ve earned the right to weigh in, and now, as neutrally, as lightly as I can manage, I say, “We shall see.”

“We shall!” says my fare.

I ask him: “Where do you do your preaching? Like you’re doing right now, or in a church?”

“I preach on the street and also in churches.” He mentions two churches out in the Bayview District.

At Sixteenth and Bryant he spends a few minutes inside the cell phone store while I sit outside in my cab, jotting notes. When he comes back we head for the Alice Griffith public housing project out by Candlestick. This was once one of the nastiest places in the city –- drug dealers clustered on the corners, drive-by strafings, crumbling buildings, desperately poor people, almost all of them African-American. Then a few years ago the San Francisco Housing Authority erected a fence around the place, rebuilt most of the units, splashed new paint everywhere, erected a gatehouse at the entrance and staffed it round-the-clock with security guards who carry guns and require everyone who enters the project to show some i.d. During my eighteen years as a night driver I hated going there, but ever since that gatehouse was erected, and especially since I became a day driver (five years ago), it barely alarms me at all any more.

The whole way out there, my fare talks on his phone to a woman (I can easily hear her voice) about buying insurance for a car she owns; about the problems of a friend the two of them have in common; and about some of the other preachers in the Bay Area. “I told him he was going to be an associate minister in 2009 –- before this year is out. I told him that...” And then, suddenly, I’m jolted by the n-word. It is, I think, the ugliest word in the English language -- perhaps in any language. “… I’m going to get that n-word on up,” my fare tells his woman friend, “and take him out and have a man’s day with him…”

For years I have tried not to let that razor-sharp epithet slip through my lips, not even in an academic or reportorial context. I have thrown white people out of my cab for using it, which they sometimes do with a vicious casualness. More frequently, black people toss the n-word around the back of my cab with a casual innocence, and I’ve reprimanded many of them against doing so, although I’ve committed this latter act only in the safe confines of my own mind.

At the entrance to the housing project, I see the gatehouse now standing empty, gutted, derelict –- undoubtedly the result of the city’s recent budget woes. But the streets of the project still seem clean enough, the sun is high, and I’m not feeling threatened. My fare directs me to stop at the curb in front of a row of ramshackle, rundown, two-story, public housing units. Parked next to us is a tall, white recreational vehicle, maybe 16 or 18 feet long and ten feet tall. Parked in the RV’s shadow is a burgundy colored Mercedes sedan that looks recently washed and waxed. The meter reads $20.20, and my fare passes a $100 bill to me. I make change, he tips me $3.20, and as he opens the back door to leave I ask, “The light -- what was it like?"

“Bright!” he says.

“Did a person come with it?”

“No,” he says, “but there was a voice.”

“Like the voices we’re using now? With words?”

“I was talking with it just like we’re talking now. Words. Sentences. We had a conversation.”

I tell him: “I’ve never smoked crack, but I had a friend who got hooked on it. He had four kids and a great job, but he just could not stay away from crack. His company sent him to rehab twice, but crack kept pulling him back, and finally he lost his job. Do you ever…?”

“So here’s how it is,” he says. “Bottom line. God told me, ‘If you preach the gospel, I’ll clean you up.’ And we made a deal. I’ve kept my end up, and so has he. He cleaned me up good. I’ve never smoked crack since then. Period. God took away the desire. Now my baby mama –- she can sit around the house smoking crack for a week, two weeks, three weeks, and I can be around her all that time and never even be tempted. It’s not for me anymore. I don’t have the desire. God cleaned me up.”

I say: “But I know things pile up on all of us sometimes. When they pile up on you, do you ever find yourself thinking, ‘You know… Maybe if...?’”

He says: “I did love smoking crack –- I’m telling it like it is – but God took that burden up off me. When I have troubles now I say, ‘God, it was your offer. I took you up on it. I’ve done my part. So what do you want me to do now?’ And he takes care of me. Over to your left…,” he says. “You see that Mercedes? And that mobile home, too?”

I turn and look. Neither vehicle is new -- they both have some years on them, but not too many.

“Back in October,” he says, “I didn’t have any money. And I talked to God, like I always do, and I said, ‘Ok, what’s up? What do you want me to do now?’ And he tells me it’s already all taken care of. And then a couple of days go by and I learn that someone who was supposed to send me some money had already sent it to me, but they sent it to the church where I preach, instead of to me. ‘Oh yeah,’ they tell me, ‘we sent that money weeks ago.’ And there it was, at the church. Seven thousand dollars. And I bought that Mercedes and that mobile home, too. And then my back went out at work, and the doctor says I can’t work for a while. But now I get money for that, too –- $1300 every two weeks – that’s the same as I was making when I could work. They say I’ll probably be off work for six months -– and I’ll be preaching every day of it. Bottom line…,” he says. “Can’t nobody tell me there ain’t no God!”